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Reviews: Ready for Liftoff

May 01, 2002 6 min read

A SMILE AS BIG AS THE MOON: A Teacher, His Class, and Their Unforgettable Journey,by Mike Kersjes with Joe Layden. (St. Martin’s Press, 276 pages, $23.95.) In 1987, Kersjes, a Grand Rapids, Michigan, high school football coach and special education teacher, read a magazine article about the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where teams of bright students from across the country converge to compete in space-oriented activities, culminating in a simulated shuttle mission. Thinking it just the kind of challenge his special ed students needed, Kersjes decided to apply.

Many of the kids had disabilities of one kind or another—dyslexia, Down and Tourette’s syndromes, and the like. Others were emotional wrecks. One boy, a gifted artist who’d done stints in 27 foster homes, was consumed with rage. Although some faculty members at his school characterized these students as “idiots,” Kersjes knew they had the capacity to do well in an exciting “real world” program with clear, meaningful objectives.

His efforts to get them accepted and to raise money for the venture take up almost the first half of this dramatic and moving book, which the teacher co-wrote with journalist Layden. Initially, almost everyone discourages Kersjes from even applying to the camp. His principal sees the endeavor as a pipe dream, telling Kersjes to give it up and just “cover the prescribed curriculum.” Worse still is the reaction of his special ed boss, who is sure the kids are doomed to fail.

But Kersjes persists. Working the old boy network, he secures the support of a U.S. congressman, who pulls strings with the people in Huntsville. He also wins over space-program dignitaries, including a former astronaut, largely by talking college football and challenging them to help his underdog kids. In the end, his students are accepted.

Immediately, Kersjes and Robynn McKinney, a special ed colleague, begin training the students in the skills they will need to compete. They memorize numerous space-travel acronyms (necessary for mission communication), practice building tetrahedrons underwater with plastic rods and nodes (a weightlessness exercise), and construct model rockets. Several times the entire endeavor threatens to fall apart when the kids, poorly equipped to deal with pressure, turn on one another.

For the training, Kersjes’ coaching sensibilities prove essential. Realizing that young people often learn best within the context of meaningful competition, he develops a board game to help his students acquire essential information. He also recognizes that the youngsters, for all of their shortcomings, possess individual strengths that can benefit the team as a whole. One boy, a mechanical whiz, takes the lead in rocket building while a particularly strong swimmer heads the underwater projects.

When Kersjes and his students finally arrive in Huntsville, some kids from other schools ridicule them, one even referring to them as “retards.” But the derision soon gives way to respect after the team gets the top score on a written test of space knowledge. This early success is threatened, though, when in the heat of an event— designing the team’s space patch—the group turns on one of its members. Just as Kersjes is about to intervene, one kid tells him: “Coach, we don’t need you anymore. We can handle this on our own.” And they do. The students end up winning a major award, but their real victory, of course, is their newfound confidence and sense of accomplishment, which for a number of the team members has endured. According to an epilogue, many of the teenagers featured here have gone on to lead productive lives. It’s a heartening story, sure to inspire other teachers struggling with students who often seem beyond their reach.

A MIND AT A TIME: America’s Top Learning Expert Shows How Every Child Can Succeedby Mel Levine. (Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $26.) Over a long and distinguished career, pediatrician and University of North Carolina professor Levine has consistently warned teachers against affixing labels to kids. The problem with tags such as dyslexia, ADD, and the like, Levine argues here, is that they not only undermine a child’s confidence but are also too general. Behavior that one person might write off as ADD, he claims, could in fact be a breakdown in any one of eight neurocognitive systems—memory, language, and sequential ordering among them. A student struggling with language skills may be inattentive in English class but stay focused during math.

One of Levine’s major themes is that childhood is far more difficult to navigate, in terms of neurocognitive demands, than adulthood. A 10th grader, for example, is expected to be proficient in algebra, essay writing, social interactions, and a number of other areas while adults can choose to specialize in only those things they’re good at. The job of the teacher, Levine writes, is to nurture children’s strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. This might range from giving a daydreaming child a timely tap on the shoulder to making sure that a youngster who can’t write well by hand has access to a word processor. Levine also argues that children be allowed to integrate some given specialty—art, music, math, writing—into a range of other subject areas.

An education expert whose ideas have been shaped by years of clinical pediatrics and common sense, Levine founded the All Kinds of Minds Institute to help schools effectively teach kids with wide-ranging learning styles and abilities. Readers of this wonderful book will quickly see that what struggling students—indeed, all students—need most are sympathetic adults who are willing to take the time to identify their strengths and build on them.

OVERCOMING THE ODDS: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Womenby Freeman Hrabowski, Kenneth Maton, Monica Greene, and Geoffrey Greif. (Oxford, 264 pages, $25.) This study by four academics, a companion to a 1998 volume about successful male African American students, explores the personal histories of 66 young black women who have been accepted to the prestigious Meyerhoff Scholarship Program for future scientists and engineers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. Generally speaking, there are no big surprises here. The parents of these women—especially the mothers— had extremely high expectations for their daughters, monitoring their homework from an early age and closely supervising their social lives. In particular, they warned the girls about the need, as one father put it, “to stay away from young men.”

These parents did differ from those of successful students in general in one important respect: They frequently told their daughters that they had to be better than children of other races if they wanted to succeed. And this, alas, seems all too true, as tales abound here of gifted black children who were regularly passed over for high-level math and science classes. The onus was on vigilant parents to intervene, as they often did. One mother’s words to a reluctant school administrator pretty much sum up the collective attitude of all the parents: “If my daughter is not in Algebra II the first day of class, I will come down here, and you will remember my face.”

—David Ruenzel


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